Techworld

Review: Samsung's Galaxy Note II gets bigger and better

Samsung has paid close attention to usability, while also boosting the browser and VPN

I had very mixed feelings about the original Galaxy Note, Samsung's "phablet" tablet/smartphone tweener, when I tested it last February. It was a bit large for one-handed use, and its apps didn't take advantage of the large screen. In fact, the apps "optimized" for the large screen were harder to use than the stock versions they replaced. But the Galaxy Note had several intriguing innovations, including its pen input.

It's clear my misigivings were not widely shared: The Note has been a smash hit for Samsung. Now Samsung has an even larger version, the Note II. The good news is that the Note II runs the latest version of Android, 4.1 "Jelly Bean." The original Note ran the outdated Android 2.3 "Gingerbread," even though the modern 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" had been released a couple months earlier.

[ If the Note II is too big for you, see who wins InfoWorld's face-off between the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III. And if the Note II isn't big enough, see which small tablet InfoWorld recommends in our hands-on review of the iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7, and Kindle Fire HD. | Get expert advice about planning and implementing your BYOD strategy with InfoWorld's "Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive" PDF special report. ]

Bigger and beefier hardwareIf you want a big screen, the Note II offers 5.5 inches, measured diagonally, versus the original Note's 5.3 inches. It's also about a quarter-inch deeper and about 1/16-inch narrower than the original Note. It'll fit in your pants or jacket pocket or a purse. In a shirt pocket, expect it to poke out precariously -- just waiting to drop.

Like the original Note, the Note II supports LTE and 3G networks. In the United States, it's now available for Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular, with availability planned for AT&T and Verizon Wireless later this year. It's available in other countries and on a variety of carriers.

It also supports Bluetooth, 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, near-field communications (NFC), and Wi-Fi Direct -- the whole cornucopia of radio connections. Bluetooth is now the power-sipping 4.0 version, and the Wi-Fi radio adds 5GHz spectrum support, which offers better speed and increased range.

As you'd expect, the CPU is faster (1.6GHz quad-core versus 1.4GHz dual-core), and the Note II feels more responsive as a result. Ironically, the resolution of its Super AMOLED display is actually a bit lower: 1,280 by 720 (larger) pixels versus the original Note's 1,280 by 800 pixels. The Note II has 16GB of internal storage and a MicroSD slot that can accept up to 64GB more. But its battery life is only adequate, running out of juice after about 10 to 12 hours of use -- faster than an iPhone.

As in the previous version, the MicroUSB port supports MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) cables for video-out to HDMI monitors. Samsung also now sells a $99 Smart Dock: a USB-and-HDMI hub that lets you connect the Note II to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for more desktoplike use. However, Samsung couldn't provide one for hands-on testing for this review, so I can't vouch for its usefulness in practice.

Oh, and you can get the Note II in high-gloss white or in what Samsung calls titanium, a burnished-metal-looking finish with a classier appearance. The Note II costs $650 without a contract and $300 at most carriers with a two-year contract.

Updated apps: Mucked-up calendar, much better browserOne app in the original Note that I thought Samsung made inferior to the stock Android version was the Calendar app, whose bright colors rendered its text hard to read. Unfortunately, the Note II's Calendar app is designed even more garishly and -- worse -- reduces the amount of useful information that displays in your calendar. For example, the original Note's month view would show the first few events of each day; the Note II just shows the number of events. Or pretends to: The badges showing the numbers completely drown out the numerals on them, so you can't actually tell how many appointments you have.

Fortunately, Calendar is the only egregious design mistake in the Note II. The Email and Contacts apps -- the lifeblood of business users -- are basically the same as in the original Note, with slightly different color schemes that do no harm. Plus, the Email app in horizontal orientation uses smarter text sizes so that you can see your message list and current email with enough detail; in the original Note's Email app, text in the message list was so large that too little information could display.

The Internet browser significantly outscores the Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" Internet browser in HTML5test.com tests: 434 points (out of a possible 500) versus 297 for the Android 4.0 version. It also beats the Chrome browser's 390 score on both the Note II and the Asus Google Nexus 7, both of which run Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean." For comparison, iOS 6's Safari scores 386. The Note II's Internet browser also has greater AJAX compatibility than the Android 4.0 version, so it's compatible with a broader range of interactive and forms-based sites, such as InfoWorld's Drupal-based content management system and its TinyMCE and JavaScript extensions. (The Galaxy S III also gets this better browser in the current Samsung Android 4.1 update.)

The Camera app has been enhanced with the kinds of image-correction features increasingly found in digital cameras, such as the ability to select each person's face in a group photo and choose the best version from a series of exposures. There are more such enhancement capabilities than in an iPhone 4S or 5, though the Note II doesn't have iOS 6's autostitching that assembles panoramic images from a series of photos.

UI improvementsIn all apps, the Note II's onscreen keyboard gains a fourth row at top for numerals (like a physical keyboard), which further facilitates text entry, though it reduces visible screen real estate too much in horizontal orientation. And a long-standing beef of mine is addressed: In the notifications pull-down, you can now tap and hold the Wi-Fi icon to select a different access point, not just use the icon to turn Wi-Fi on or off as in standard Android. (The Galaxy S III also gets this function in the current Samsung Android 4.1 update.)

There's also a new setting for one-handed operation, which reworks several UI components so that they're clustered in reach of a thumb. One of my critiques of the original Note was that its screen was too large for my thumb to reach all areas -- and my hands are fairly large. This new setting is meant to address that reach issue. You can now move the Phone app's buttons, the Calculator app, the onscreen keyboard, and even the unlock window to one of the lower corners, based on whether you are left- or right-handed. But there is still no split-keyboard option for two-handed thumb typing, which would be a helpful addition.

Samsung has copied an Apple innovation from OS X that comes in quite handy: the ability to block notifications and incoming calls completely -- so you can manually turn it on during a meeting -- or during specified hours, such as overnight. As with iOS's Do Not Disturb feature, you can set Samsung's Blocking Mode to allow calls and notifications from your favorite contacts or a group you create even during blocked-off times. It's a handy feature that Android itself should adopt. (Yes, Samsung's Android 4.1 update adds this to the Galaxy S III.)

The Note II also picks up a Samsung feature introduced in the Galaxy S III: Smart Stay. If enabled, the Note II uses its camera to detect when you're using the device. If you are, it disregards the sleep settings. This feature increases battery usage, but it also prevents the screen from locking while you're watching or reading something, rather than tapping or typing, for long periods.

Finally, the Page Buddy feature adds special-purpose home screens contextually, if you enable them. For example, when you plug in a headset or earphones, the Earphones page appears with volume controls and relevant audio apps. There are similar "buddy" home screens for when you're using the pen, when you're docked, and when you're roaming. It's a cool idea.

The Note II keeps the Motion UI capabilities introduced in the original Note, such as tilt to zoom and turn over to mute. It then adds a half-dozen more, such as displaying current status information when you move a sleeping Note II toward your face and double-tapping to jump to the top of a list. I like how Samsung keeps finding ways to use environmental factors as UI controls, so you're less confined to tapping and typing to get stuff done. (Once again, the Galaxy S III gains these in Samsung's Android 4.1 update.)

VPN security made easier, and more compatibleI was very happy to discover that the Note II could connect to InfoWorld's Cisco IPSec VPN. It's the first Android device I've tested that has been able to do so out of the box, without needing client software.

Plus, I like the Note II's new ability to save VPN credentials, so I don't need to keep reentering them. I know that will freak out many security managers, as that means anyone can connect to the VPN if they have the device. But (unlike in the Galaxy S III, which still doesn't support Cisco IPSec VPNs natively) VPN connections are saved in a password-protected list. Even if someone picks up the Note II while it's unlocked, he or she needs to know the user's VPN list password to access the VPN.

Refined pen capabilitiesIt's the pen capabilities that really distinguish the Note series from other smartphones. The Note II has amped up these capabilities, with more pen support than before. For example, you can now annotate your calendar, such as circling specific dates. You can add an actual signature to your emails. And in the included Polaris office-productivity app, you can draw on your presentations' slides.

Plus, you can now create an image clip without first taking a screenshot. The pen does this in one step: Hold its button, then draw around the area you want to clip. You have to make sure you return to your starting point to get the clip -- that can be tricky given the nearly invisible tracing line and start-point indicator on screen. If you do, the clip area is highlighted, and tapping the screen saves its image to the Clipboard. At the bottom of the screen, a row of applications to which you can send the image appears; tap one to send the image to it. This is much more convenient than the approach used in the original Note.

Samsung has replaced the original Note's S Memo app with S Note in the Note II. This enhanced note-taking and doodling app now supports multipage notes, audio recording, and the ability to create shortcuts for individual notes on your home screens. The need for actual pen and paper is once again reduced.

The Note II's screen is more sensitive to the pen hovering over it -- sometimes too sensitive, picking up the stylus where it's not actually onscreen and thus moving the pointer unexpectedly. This is actually a feature called AirView. The Note II detects the pen if its tip is no farther than 1 centimeter from the screen. If you hover the pen over partial content -- the first few lines of an email in the message list, a video's thumbnail, and so on -- the Note II reveals in a popup window the full contents, such as to show the complete message or play the video.

AirView provides the kind of rich contextual capability Apple debuted in OS X with its Quick Look facility (which uses shortcuts, not gestures) several years ago. It's simply amazing how such a desktop-style feature can now be brought to mobile devices, and Samsung deserves kudos for pushing the Note II into such rich desktop functionality.

The new "phablet" is fabulousSamsung has implemented a lot of wise improvements in the Note II, resulting in a much better device than the original version. The UI enhancements, better browser, and beefier hardware all combine for a very nice user experience -- if only it had a well-designed Calendar app! I still think the Note II is too big for me, but if you can handle its size, it's a great smartphone -- and a decent micro-tablet.

This article, "Review: Samsung's Galaxy Note II gets bigger and better," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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